ROSEMONT, ILL – The Central Division has been full of ups and downs all season. Two of the teams in playoff position in December failed to make the cut, while the Chicago Wolves went on a tear to move from dead-last in the Central to first place by the conclusion of the regular season.
In a similar vein, the IceHogs turned their season around to make a late playoff push after sitting on the outside looking in for the majority of the season. The two Illinois Lottery Cup rivals have faced off against one another an impressive 12 times this season, with the Wolves winning not only back-to-back Central Division titles, but also consecutive Illinois Lottery Cups.
Now, the Chicago Wolves are looking to build upon last season’s second-round exit with an almost completely different bench than 2016-17, a new affiliate and a new bench boss in Rocky Thompson. Rockford missed the playoffs last season, and has done so five out of its last eight years. Though the IceHogs have many familiar faces on this season’s roster, they do also have a new man behind the bench in Jeremy Colliton.
Final Regular Season Records:
Chicago Wolves: 42-23-7-4, 95 points (1st in Central Division, 2nd in Western Conference)
Rockford IceHogs: 40-28-4-4, 88 points (4th in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference)
Game 1 – Saturday, April 21 – Rockford at CHICAGO 7 pm CT
Game 2 – Sunday, April 22 – Chicago at ROCKFORD 4 pm CT
Game 3 – Thursday, April 26 – Rockford at CHICAGO 7 pm CT
*Game 4 – Sunday, April 29 – Chicago at ROCKFORD 4 pm CT
*Game 5 – Monday, April 30 – Rockford at CHICAGO 7 pm CT
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
These two teams are all too familiar with one another as they faced off 12 times in the regular season, effectively splitting the games. However, while the IceHogs went 6-6, the Wolves went 6-2-3-1 and their four additional points gave them the Illinois Lottery Cup title. These records also show that every win by the Wolves came in regulation, while out of six victories for the IceHogs, they needed extra time for four of them.
The Wolves have three players with ten or more points against the IceHogs this season – Teemu Pulkkinen with 14, and T.J. Tynan and Beau Bennett with 10 apiece. Brett Sterling has nine. The IceHogs are also the only team against which all five of the Wolves’ goaltenders have played; Kasimir Kaskisuo has the best record against Rockford, going 3-0, while the presumed starter Oscar Dansk went 1-1-1 in his three games.
Though the IceHogs do not have a single player with 10-plus points against the Wolves, Anthony Louis and Carl Dahlstrom have been a thorn in Chicago’s side all season, especially recently, with their eight points apiece. Rockford has iced four goaltenders against the Wolves, with their presumed starter Jeff Glass being 5-2. However, in his final game, the goaltender allowed five goals in a 6-4 loss to Chicago.
Chicago has won the most recent two meetings of the two teams, 6-4 and 5-4. In the second game, the Wolves had begun the process of resting key players entering the playoffs, and were even without key center Wade Megan in the 6-4 victory. Newcomer Nicolas Hague had this to say about the 5-4 win,
“I think it shows the depth of this team. The fact that we can not play top players on this team and we’re able to beat Rockford. They’re a good team and we were sitting some key parts of our lineup.”
How Chicago Wins:
The Wolves have such depth in their lineup, especially with the recent blue line additions, that it will be difficult for the IceHogs to shut down threats coming from all four lines. Pulkkinen and Bennett in particular have been a dangerous pairing which no team has been able to shut down, and they show no signs of stopping.
Exploiting this scoring depth will be key for Rocky Thompson’s team who is looking to mirror the success of their parent club. The additions of Zac Leslie, Philip Holm and Hague have added a further dimension of danger for opposing teams as they have provided much-needed scoring depth from the blue line; Jake Bischoff has also picked up his offensive pace as of late.
32 of Chicago’s 42 wins have come when scoring first, and to make it to the second round they need to keep this up. They also need to take advantage of Rockford’s lackluster special teams, as the Wolves have a 22% success on the power play against the IceHogs. The only potential weak spot for this Wolves teams is the man in the crease, as Dansk is really good when he’s on, but tends to get in his own head at times. If the Wolves dictate the pace of play from the opening puck drop, then Rocky’s team could handily make its way into the next round.
How Rockford Wins:
The biggest advantage this Rockford team has over the Wolves is its ability to play physically in a way its opponents have not always been able to match. At times, Rockford has frustrated Chicago and coerced it into taking foolish penalties which the IceHogs have been able to capitalize upon.
This Rockford team also brings more experience into the playoffs, and it could work in their favor. The addition of Chris DiDomenico brought some needed scoring depth into the IceHogs’ fold, and thus far he has been successful against the Wolves with five points (3G, 2A) in five games.
As dependent upon scoring first as the Wolves have been, this IceHogs team may be even more with 31 of its 40 wins coming this way. The IceHogs have struggled with special teams all season, but their 18% power play against the Wolves is a few percentage points better than its overall record.
On paper, the IceHogs have the better goaltending duo in J-F Berube and Glass, but each has had their struggles against the Wolves this season. If they get a lights-out performance from their goaltending tandem, as well as sustained hard-hitting scoring depth, then the IceHogs stand a chance to push this series to five games and pull out the eventual win.
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